A tune on gay evangelicals that evangelicals won’t recognize

While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”

Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups – a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years

From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):

1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.

2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.

4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash

The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.

The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.

The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:

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Want balanced coverage? USA Today shows how it’s done

A few weeks ago a study on news media coverage by the Pew Research Center showed that stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.

While the findings weren’t a surprise to most people who read news stories I suspect it came as a shock to some of the folks who write them. While almost everyone in the media will admit they are biased, most professional news reporters are bothered by the idea that their bias is undermining their work as journalists. The Pew study thus served as both a wake-up call and a warning that more balance is needed.

Over the next few days, GetReligionistas will be seeing who learned that lesson as we examine the coverage of religion and same-sex marriage in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Tmatt got us started by showing how The Baltimore Sun missed an opportunity, but I want to show an example of a news outlet doing it right.

With a title like “Religious leaders divided on gay-marriage decisions” you normally expect (re: Pew) to see one religious leader — most likely a Catholic bishop — state their opposition while two to four representatives — most likely mainline Protestant pastors — express their support. But the feature by USA Today is not only more balanced than usual but also covers a broader range of the religious spectrum.

Here is a list of sources quoted and where they stand:

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Evangelicalism is political, but not a political movement

How many political issues do American evangelicals care about? Apparently, just two: abortion and same-sex marriage. At least that is the impression you’d get if you read about evangelicals in the mainstream press.

Earlier today, CNN updated their “Fast Facts” page on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Aside from general biographical information and a timeline of his career, the page includes only three “Other Facts,” including this one:

Evangelical Christian who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

Australia’s Herald Sun describes another Minnesota politician, Michele Bachmann, in similar terms:

The former tax lawyer staked out positions against big government, with calls for slashing taxes and debt, while touting her credentials as a Christian evangelical opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Abortion and same-sex marriage. And that’s that.

With the media constantly connecting evangelicalism with these issues it’s no surprise that many people believe these are the only two moral, cultural and political issues that matter to evangelical Christians. As important as these issues are, though, they are just two of a multitude of concerns that comprise the public agenda of American evangelicals.

Evangelicalism is religious movement that span across a broad range, from left to right, across the political spectrum. There is no singular “evangelical perspective” on any political issue. And on doctrinal matters? Even that question will cause fierce debates.

Yet for many journalists, politics is the metanarrative that frames all others belief structures. Since I can’t convince them to stop treating religion as a subset of politics, I thought it might be useful to at least help them broaden their perspective by pointing out how evangelicals tend to faith prioritizes and influences political views. I’ve been an evangelical my entire life and a close observer and participant of evangelical trends — particularly in the media and politics — for the past fifteen years. But you don’t need to be an insider to recognize the main concerns of the evangelical community — especially evangelical leaders — tends to revolve around six key principles.

These six principles, of course, do not comprise an exhaustive list. While I incorporated many of the themes from the National Association of Evangelicals’ paper on civic engagement, the list remains rather subjective and based on my own experience. Still, while it won’t provide a definitive answer to the question of what American evangelicals care about, I believe it’ll show that the political concerns are more broad-based than is often realized. The six principles are:

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Is Politico as partisan as The Weekly Standard?

Today is Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s last day. You can read his memo to staff here.

To mark it, I’m ruminating on a Twitter exchange I happened across last night. So telling. It begins with John McCormack, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, writing:

Politico article on abortion issue includes two quotes–one from Planned Parenthood and one, for balance, from ACLU

It’s a particularly bad example of what we see on abortion coverage every day, as well as coverage of many other hot-button issues commonly found on beats linked to religion and politics. Even though this is only six paragraphs long, it’s a bad example.

But what I found interesting was the response from Andrew Kaczynski, a reporter for the supposedly mainstream Buzzfeed:

Lot of balance in those Weekly Standard Chuck Hagel stories.

This is a reference to The Weekly Standard‘s work opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. But the Standard (where my better half works) is an avowedly conservative opinion journal. It’s whole purpose is to spread adoption of a particular set of conservative values.

Do you see the problem here?

BuzzFeed and Politico (and the Washington Post, and countless other media outlets) present themselves as mainstream media outlets doing straight news. I’ll let Twitter do my work for me:

@QuinHillyer Weekly Standard is an opinion journal. Politico claims to be straight news. Big difference in what’s expected

@McCormackJohn Well, at least they’re more balanced than Buzzfeed’s articles on gay marriage. Also: We don’t pretend we’re not ideological.

@IMAO_ He’s very clearly saying that Politico is as partisan as the Weekly Standard.

We’ve been talking about this a lot recently, because it’s a major change in the stated objectives of mainstream media. This is also a topic closely linked to media-bias studies about religion news.

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Playing the same-sex marriage card

Over the weekend, the better half stirred up quite a hornet’s nest for a post noting that some in the media aren’t the slightest bit interested in covering the same-sex marriage debate with any degree of impartiality or nuance. The verdict she reached is damning, and that conclusion can be reached simply by accurately quoting journalists about why they don’t bother quoting gay marriage opponents.

In any event, this lack of nuance and unwillingness to dig a little deeper tends to make a hash out of even the most basic reportage on the issue. And so we have this report from the Baltimore Sun, “‘Superman’ author’s gay rights opposition prompts local boycott.” The gist of the story is that DC Comics recently hired Orson Scott Card to write a new Superman series. Card also happens to be a practicing Mormon and a board member at the National Organization for Marriage. One comic book store in Baltimore, citing Card’s opposition to gay marriage, won’t sell the series. Here’s how the Sun introduces Card and characterizes his views:

Card, who is on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, has campaigned vigorously against gay marriage. Opinion pieces the author has written have linked same-sex marriage to the end of civilization.

“[M]arriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy,” he wrote in 2008 in the Mormon Times.

More than 14,000 people have signed an online petition asking the company to drop Card.

“We need to let DC Comics know they can’t support Orson Scott Card or his work to keep LGBT people as second-class citizens,” wrote the petition’s creator, All Out, an organization that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. “By hiring Orson Scott Card despite his anti-gay efforts, you are giving him a new platform and supporting his hate.”

The controversy comes as marriage equality gains momentum nationwide. In November, Maryland, Maine and Washington voters approved referendums legalizing same-sex marriages, making a total of nine states and the District of Columbia that allow them.

First, saying Card is “well-known” is a bit of an understatement. He’s a legend in the world of science fiction. When NPR polled 60,000 people on what their 100 favorite science fiction novels were, Ender’s Game came in third behind Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Published in 1985, Ender’s Game is about a future where, facing the annihilation of humanity, child soldiers are conscripted to fight a war against insectoid aliens.The book largely revolves around the moral implications of that terrifying scenario, and aside from being deeply resonant with a popular audience, Card’s mediation on what happens to your essential humanity when you are forced to kill for survival landed it on the reading list that the commandant recommends for the entire Marine Corps. Now Card can be excitable — he once wrote he would work to “destroy” any government that redefined marriage. But on balance, he’s hardly a fringe character, nor are his views outside the mainstream.

I understand that it’s in the interest of gay marriage advocates to make anyone who vocally opposes their agenda subject to a blizzard of negative press, but the Sun‘s report is premised on pretty thin gruel. The justification is that one local comic book store saying they won’t carry the Card-authored Superman series, and an internet petition with 14,000 signatures. There’s also the obviously loaded language — “The controversy comes as marriage equality gains momentum nationwide.” (Hmm. I was unaware that Card was opposed to ‘equality.’) And in a spectacular bit of editorial judgment, the article is also paired on line with a TMZ-esque video report about a comic book store owner in Dallas who is uncritically quoted as saying Card is a “bigot,” fond of “hate speech,” and “venomously anti-gay.”

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Guess which WPost reporter refuses to cover you fairly

This weekend, we looked at the Washington Post ombudsman column that revealed that the newspaper has an extremely serious problem with doing basic journalism when it comes to the thorny issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.

The ombudsman column is something that could be discussed for many reasons, but I want to narrow it to just one point of discussion: anonymity. Should the ombudsman have granted anonymity to the reporter who was revealing his or her bigotry and egregious ignorance against the people he or she is supposed to cover intelligently and fairly?

Again, you can read my piece “WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists” for the details of this breathtaking admission from the Post, but for our purposes the relevant portion is this:

Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.

Now, I don’t get as animated about anonymity as many journalists do, although I do agree it poses serious problems. I also know that I would have written very few stories about waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government without granting it.

You know how when people are granted anonymity, reporters write why they wanted it? Say, because they’re not supposed to talk publicly about that personnel decision or sensitive bill negotiations or whatever? Well, one media critic recently suggested that instead of talking about why the source wanted anonymity, reporters should simply say why they granted it.

Anyway, the problem with the anonymity granted to the reporter in this case is that it tarnishes 100% of the reporters at the Washington Post. I was at a party of journalists this weekend where various people named who they thought the reporter in question was. There were a few theories and some were stronger than others. But if I were a decent reporter at the Post, one who did not hold uncontrollably bigoted views against religious adherents or people with different moral or political views than my own, I’d be unhappy to have many of my readers wondering if I seethed with contempt for them.

Let’s look at an interesting Twitter conversation between a few other reporters who discussed the ombudsman’s piece, including the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York, Jan Crawford of CBS News, and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:

@Byron York: WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper’s mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him.

@JanCBS: It’s the reporter’s obliviousness to bias (lecturing on what conservatives “should” believe) that’s most revealing.

@JamesTaranto: If he were truly oblivious, he wouldn’t have insisted on anonymity.

@JanCBS: He was emailing with a reader. I assumed he wasn’t anonymous.

@JamesTaranto: See the piece. @wapoombudsman granted him anonymity.

@JanCBS: My point is he/she is saying those things publicly as a reporter. Byline is irrelevant.

@JamesTaranto: But he was suddenly inhibited when faced with the prospect of having his views published in his own paper.

@JanCBS: So what? That he/she initially saw nothing wrong in expressing those views is my point re newsrooms.

@JamesTaranto: Imagine how you’d feel if CBS aired a similar rant by one of your colleagues without identification.

Don Surber, an editorial writer at the Charleston Daily Mail wrote:

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WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists

On Feb. 15, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton made a startling statement:

It is possible that I’ll be The Washington Post’s last independent ombudsman and that this chair will empty at the conclusion of my two-year term Feb. 28. If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.

His column today may give some insight into why. Or, as reporter Byron York wrote:

WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper’s mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him. http://ow.ly/hYSgJ

Friends, it’s bad. And I’m not really talking about the column, although the column is bad, too.

The column covers an exchange between a reporter and a reader. The latter understands what journalism should be and the reporter reveals some breathtaking bigotry about the people he or she is supposed to be covering. Simply quoting that bigotry from an unnamed Washington Post journalist is devastating. Just devastating. If you wonder, sometimes, whether any reporters drip with contempt for religious conservatives, this will not disabuse you of that notion. Pexton sets it up:

I get a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.

“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle.”

Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous three-way e-mail dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.

He quotes from the dialogue:

The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. … Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”

Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”

The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.

“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”

The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?

“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”

That discussion is most revealing about journalists.

Why, we all know how much the Washington Post cares about civil rights, right? I couldn’t even begin to quantify how much ink has been spilled advocating for an entire class of humans deemed not deserving of even the most fundamental right to life. Why, sometimes I think the Washington Post almost cares too much about the scourge of abortion, don’t you? Oh wait, that’s right, they actually don’t care about that civil right at all. What’s more, they don’t even agree that the unborn human’s right to life *is* a civil rights issue — at least for the unborn children involved.

And guess what, unnamed reporter and your army of close-minded scribes: Whether or not there *is* a civil right to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples or other groupings is precisely — precisely — the debate at hand. In other words, some people make the claim that changing marriage law is a matter of civil rights. They claim, along with the the ruling in the California Prop. 8 decision, that bias against gays is rooted in religion (a claim with amazing and, to this point, completely unexplored implications). Others say that same-sex marriage is an ontological impossibility — that gender complementarity is an essential part of the definition of marriage, and therefore there is no civil right for marriage to be redefined as something for which gender is not essential.

Failure to understand the basic (and, frankly, not even that difficult to understand) arguments of those who oppose redefining marriage is inexcusable bigotry, particularly after years of witnessing what happens in the coverage of this debate. Reporters close their eyes, slam their fingers in their ears and shout “racist!” anytime a traditional marriage defender opens his or her mouth.

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Pod people: Same-sex marriage on the march

On this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed Dave Brubeck’s sacred music and religious life — and how substantive discussion of same were missing from many obituaries about the jazz great. We also discussed the general cheerleading of coverage dealing with same-sex marriage.

The hook for that was the stories leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision about whether to hear the rulings related to California’s Proposition 8 decision. On Friday, as tmatt noted, the court announced it would take up that case, as well as the one related to federal benefits for same-sex couples.

In a post about this tenor of coverage from last week, I wrote

I can’t help but think that the same media that has written for approaching a full decade on one U.S. Senator’s thoughts on a gay-related court case might have a tad more interest in the particulars of an important court ruling with implications for religious exercise, gender roles and kinship. But maybe that’s just me.

There’s still time for the court to say it’s going to take up one of the cases. Let us know if you see any coverage that deviates from the expected narrative.

Reader The Old Bill responded:

Yes, Mollie, it’s you. You think a reporter should report on what is happening, not what he feels should be happening. The press treats a complete change in what marriage has always been as something that has but one side. Anyone who might question this is, as the judge said, irrational and “on the wrong side of history.”

What is reported depends a lot on what is assumed.

I saw no deviation from that standard narrative this weekend in the early reports on the SCOTUS decision. The terminology of one side of the debate has been more or less adopted by the mainstream media. It’s not uncommon to see the phrase “marriage equality” used — outside of quotes, much less scare quotes — in mainstream reports. While those opposed to changes in marriage law say that “same-sex marriage” is an ontological impossibility — akin to saying “square circles” and calling for “shape equality” — the media usually fail to mention this perspective or put it at the end of a story in quotes from the token opposition.

There just hasn’t been any coverage of the substance of arguments against changing marriage law, much less a discussion of the consequences of same, outside of some one-sided enthusiasm. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know if you follow this, no matter your personal views on marriage law. So in the New York Times article announcing the SCOTUS decision, we learn in the fourth paragraph:

The court’s move comes against the backdrop of a rapid shift in public attitudes about same-sex marriage, with recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans support allowing such unions. After the elections last month, the number of states authorizing same-sex marriage increased by half, to nine.

This paragraph comes right after a paragraph saying that the court is to decide whether one of the cases is constitutional, an interesting juxtaposition of popularity and principle. In the 15th paragraph, we get this brief, anodyne quote from someone opposed to changing marriage law:

Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the court should address the broader question but say no. “What’s at stake,” he said, “is whether the Constitution demands a redefinition of marriage and whether states can even vote on this issue.”

Just interesting.

Also interesting was that the only other next-day story from the New York Times was reported by five reporters and was outspokenly only about one side of the debate. The headline is “Worry Tempers Joy Over Gay Marriage’s Moment in Court.”

The entire article is just quote after quote after quote after quote of  people who, like those in the New York Times newsroom, all think the same thing about what the definition of marriage should be. And that’s fine, I guess, but isn’t it weird to not have an article about those people on the other side of the debate?

Do they have worry and joy, too? Do their views matter at all? Why can’t we talk about them in news articles? Why the complete lock-down on just talking to them and hearing from them and learning what they think about this step?

If you have five reporters covering that story, maybe you could peel one or two off to talk to a real-live supporter of traditional marriage laws. Or is it, as the Times public editor put it in her column criticizing the paper for failing to cover the Bradley Manning hearings, “Such decisions seem to say: ‘It’s news when we say it’s news.’”

That’s a lot of power for a paper to hold, but it should be used wisely. There’s nothing to fear from simply hearing from multiple sides of a given issue. Perhaps there’s even much to gain from such a journalistic approach.


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